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“Do you believe in_____?”
A common social question, a casual fill-in-the-blank: ghosts, astrology, capital punishment, God, reincarnation, soulmates, a woman’s right to choose, love? As if belief, whether ingrained or hard-won, was not deeply personal. As if it could be easily discussed in a loud pub filled with circumstantial acquaintances; acquaintances who were, in this case, Alia’s boyfriend’s drunken co-workers.
One of these co-workers had found a new job at a different secondary school and this was the going-away party — or, as they said here in Britain, a “leaving-do,” held at a bar that was known for having twenty different kinds of cider on tap. Otherwise it was an ordinary place, lit by dim bulbs beneath yellow glass lampshades and by two flickering televisions showing the soccer - no, football - match. It smelled of fried food and spilled beer and too-warm human bodies sweating into polyester, a scent that reminded Alia strongly, not pleasantly, of her parents.
Her boyfriend, Chris, well-loved by all, was holding court by the billiards table, surrounded by colleagues but occasionally looking up to seek Alia’s eye so he could wink at her from across the room. This was his concession to her request that he try and include her in his party experience so that she didn’t get cornered into conversation with someone like Mitch, the handsy, close-talking Earth Sciences teacher who was leaning into her personal space right this moment, standing in front of her pub stool and using his broad, cologned body to square her off from the rest of the room, breathing fried onions into her face and asking the impossible question, “So, do you believe in______?”
This evening it was aliens.
“From one scientist to another,” Mitch was saying. “Extra-terrestrial life. Is it out there?” He paused to take a long drink of his cider, mustache glistening wetly when he lowered the glass. “Or,” he said, “are we alone?”
This last was said provocatively: alone. Alia looked around at the Friday night pub, at all the people crowding into each other’s space; a group of six laughing women squeezed into a booth meant for four, two men with their arms across one another’s shoulders and their heads pressed together in a drunken tête-a-tête, tall Chris with his red hair lit up from behind by a neon beer sign while his colleagues clustered around him like grapes on a vine. Were they alone?
Alia did not want to engage Mitch any further, and so, as was her habit, she stayed quiet, shrugging, drinking too-sweet cider, trying to catch Chris’ eye again while he steadfastly avoided looking at her so he could stay blamelessly in the center of those adoring faces.
If she had wanted to speak to Mitch, however, if she’d wanted to be in true conversation, she would have asked him this question: “Let’s say you knew definitively whether or not we were, as you say, alone in this universe — would it even make a difference?” She would have asked, “Would you change your life?”
But she withheld this question and let it smolder in secret, a source of power, like belief, and she stayed completely silent. Soon Mitch was unnerved and walked away.
In public, in pubs, at parties, Alia told people she studied feathers. This was generally, but not specifically, true. What she studied currently were the stable isotopes that made up the feathers of juvenile specimens of the thick-billed curlew; a streaky little migratory bird in the wader family who’d been put on, then taken off, then reinstated, then again taken off the British Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee British List. What that complicated history meant was: people had said they’d spotted the bird on British soil, but they’d been wrong — or, as in the case of the Hastings Rarities hoax, perpetuated through the early 1900s but not exposed til 1962, lying.
These lies were high drama in the world of British ornithology, because the thick-billed curlew was exceedingly rare. So rare, in fact, that now, in 2019, there hadn’t been a verified sighting anywhere in the world since Morocco, 1995; so not only was the curlew considered critically endangered, but was also widely expected to be the first European bird species to be declared extinct since the great auk, the last of which had died in 1852.
There were still a good number of juvenile thick-billed curlew feathers on file, however, and within the feathers, enough isotopes for Alia to isolate, thus enough hydrogen atoms to study, thus enough information to compare with global isotope ratio maps in order to (hopefully) determine where the curlew’s breeding grounds were (or had been), which was the whole point of the project.
Where did the birds come from? Where had they gone?
It was beginning to seem that these questions may go unanswered. The results of the research were proving either inconclusive or impossible, Alia wasn’t certain yet which. Inconclusive was one thing; impossible another, and the possibility of impossibility permeated Alia’s life, both waking and sleeping. When she was working or when she thought of her work, her body felt light with wonder and excitement.
But in public when asked what she did, she answered “feathers” and left it at that, because she believed her job, though endlessly engaging to her personally, was boring to anyone outside of it.
What, then, was interesting? Alia had decided that interest, like its financial cognate, was defined by investment: people became interested when they had some prior investment. Chris was a secondary school English teacher, the most conversationally accessible job in the world, because most people had been to secondary school and had their own experiences to bring to the table; and also everyone liked, or pretended to like, books, and tended to be both familiar with, and supportive of, the study of them. Chris spoke about work all the time, rattling off funny stories about trying to teach Shakespeare in teenage internet vernacular, or quoting papers that had particularly touched or tickled him (a fifteen year-old girl on the trials of Frankenstein’s monster: “In literature, as in life, visible scars can make it hard to be self-confident”), and rather than putting people off, his work-chatter drew them to him.
The few times Alia did try and talk about her work, she imitated Chris and aimed for anecdotes. When he invited friends for dinner she tried to tell them about a man who’d called the British Ornithologists Society claiming to have a thick-billed curlew living in his backyard in Brighton, but really it was just a duck, which was objectively hilarious, wasn’t it? But no one laughed. Then she tried to describe an incident in which one of her co-workers had broken a beaker full of very expensive and highly volatile liquid, then been so flustered he’d tried to mop it up with his sleeve — also hilarious, also no laughter.
The problem with Alia’s theory about interest and investment was that she deeply misinterpreted what it meant to relate. She believed nobody outside her lab would be interested in the isotopes of thick-billed curlew feathers, because nobody outside the lab could invest themselves or project themselves factually into her scientific world. Unless a person studied isotopes themselves, or had at least a passing knowledge beforehand, how could they see themselves in her work?
She did not push this idea to its illogical conclusions, however, which would have involved the challenge of assessing the art that had moved her most deeply in her life, and realizing that none of it was about or even referenced a poor white American cisfemale scientist raised in Maryland. Her favorite novel was about a rich Nigerian man trying to bring up his eleven-year-old son; her favorite movie was about a sex cult full of gorgeous Japanese women; and her favorite painting was of an enormous bright-flowering cactus in a New Mexican desert she’d never seen.
Factually, she had zero connection to any of these things, no prior investment, and so by her own definitions, ought to have had no interest. Of course her interest — her investment — was all metaphorical. Emotional. Yet when she spoke of her work, she kept her feelings entirely out of it. She kept herself out of it. And in doing so, she kept others out as well.
On what tectonic level of emotion might people have felt themselves in her description of her job? How might they have, after all, been interested? She couldn’t know, because she didn’t talk about it.
There was more Alia did not talk about.
As a little girl she’d been lullabied to sleep by the sound of her mother crying in the next room, and been well-trained that the answer to the question “What’s wrong?” should always be “Nothing.” However, because no one ever asked the question, “What’s right?”, she extrapolated outwards (already thinking like a scientist) and applied the same answer. Hers was not a home with a generous heart; both her parents were powerless against alcohol and so they sought power in other ways, mostly through ownership and control, mostly of Alia, who sought her own form of control. Two things belonged to her, and her alone: her mind, and her silence.
In school she did very well, especially in the maths and sciences, where she sank blissfully into definitives like sore muscles sighing in a hot bath. In math she loved calculus the best, a concrete path laid down in the wilderness of ever-changing quantities, and in science she was drawn to biology, so physical and visible, a field where abstractions were themselves abstractions. She was most attracted to the tiny boundaried world of cells and envied them their protective walls and membranes. With gusto she dissected frogs, made Punnet squares, labeled line drawings of nuclei.
The smaller the world, the safer she believed she was within it.
As she grew older, went to college, got her PhD, excelled, she carefully maintained her borders. She wasn’t anti-social; she had some friends, had some boyfriends, but it would never have occurred to them to confide in her, nor she in them. Once, while out for drinks with colleagues, she excused herself to the bathroom and came back in time to overhear two of them discussing her:
“It’s not that she’s quiet,” said one. “It’s just that she never says anything.”
“Still waters run deep?” suggested the other.
“Or maybe the river runs dry,” said the first, and they giggled, bonding.
Alia found she did not take offense at this conversation. Rather, she was oddly proud. Yes, she was a mystery. She was a person with secrets, however small and common, and secrets kept the door closed. Secrets kept her shielded.
As a younger woman, she had occasionally let herself dream that someday a man would come along and long to know her so completely that he’d beg to hear her secrets, with tenderness and attention he would cajole them from her and finally she would let them out, would cede control and give herself over to love. Love was the ultimate and only powerlessness she craved, a misunderstanding as fundamental as her misunderstanding of interest. But no such man came along. No one loved her enough to draw her secrets out of her — or, anyway, that was the narrative she recited to herself. She did not ask what might happen if she gave her secrets up of her own volition; gave them out of love, rather than withholding them to prove the lack of it.
Where did the thick-billed curlew nest? On what private corner of the earth did it lay its eggs?
If Alia had ever taken the time to explain her work to a layperson, she would have said isotopes were like little clues left by the food and water of the hatching environment, clues that could be tracked in the feather tissues of the baby birds, and maybe she would have referred to herself as a kind of detective. Earth’s geographic regions all had their own isoscapes and it was against these isoscapes that Alia compared the clues she took from the feathers. When she had begun work on this project, the prevailing theory was that the birds hatched in Kazakhstan, in the forest-steppe region, but this was a weak and tenuous theory that relied heavily on a very small sampling of comparable isotopes, mostly indicative of mineral similarity.
The most impenetrable piece of data that Alia’s team kept coming up against was the freakish ratio of hydrogen and oxygen that was measured within the feathers. The birds, it seemed, did not drink water. Nor did they eat plants or animals that consumed water. But this was patently impossible. Over and over again she took tiny samples from the inner part of the sixth primary feathers, over and over she put them through the steps of the test, the sodium hydroxide solutions and deionised water washes and the furnace of 1,080 degrees Celsius, yet she kept getting the same impossible results. No water, no water, no water.
“How was work?” Chris asked Alia as they ate dinner each night. She told him about a hiccup in the funding grant and about a colleague who’d unironically put up motivational kitten posters in the lab and about the new veggie burger in the cafeteria. He didn’t ask her how she felt about any of these things and she didn’t tell him; that wasn’t the nature of their relationship. They watched TV and had absolutely okay sex and went to sleep. All the while in the back of her mind she kept repeating, incredulous: no water, no water, no water.
Or at least, no water on earth.
It was not exactly that there was no evidence of water present in the feathers — it was that the water present was unlike any evidence of water Alia had ever seen. It was, simply put, too heavy. Or had been, back when it was liquid. When neutrons were added to hydrogen atoms, they gained mass and formed a deuterium isotope of hydrogen instead of the standard protium isotope, which, when mixed with oxygen, created deuterated water, D2O. Heavy water. Heavy water occurred in about one in twenty million water molecules, so it wasn’t exactly uncommon, but the feather samples Alia kept taking contained only heavy water. Algae and bacteria could live on heavy water alone, but birds could not — and even if they could, heavy water in these quantities did not exist anywhere on the planet.
Alia was not working on the project alone, of course, but in her small team she was the lead and all information went to and through her. Her teammates ran the tests but it was Alia who analyzed the results. The team was well-aware that the results were strange and uncertain, but Alia, as was her nature, had not quite let them see the wondrous impossibility she herself had glimpsed. Instead, quietly, she requested access to a very different set of water isoscapes than the ones they’d been working with and when these isoscapes arrived she began the process of comparison, alone. For nearly an entire sleepless week she stayed late in the lab after all her teammates had gone home, trying to make sense of what she discovered.
NASA had granted her access to the requested isoscapes without asking many questions of her, nor did she expect any kind of follow-up. Why should they concern themselves with a British ornithological study? So she was the only person in the world to see that the isoscape suggested by the feathers of the thick-billed curlew were nearly an exact isotopic match not for the Kazakh steppe or for Siberia or for anywhere on Earth, but for Phoebe: a moon of Saturn.
It did not make any kind of rational, logical sense, but every single test Alia ran suggested the same thing. The birds had hatched on Phoebe. If hatched was what they’d done. If birds were what they were.
“I am hallucinating,” she said out loud to her reflection in the lab’s fluorescent bathroom. That didn’t seem right. “I am delusional,” she tried, but she knew that wasn’t right, either. “There is a perfectly natural explanation for what I am seeing,” she said. “I will run this by my colleagues. I will request extended funding. I will contact NASA again.”
She was shaking. She could see it in the mirror, could see her lips trembling and her shoulders vibrating. When she reached for the water tap, her fingers could barely find purchase. There were tears in her eyes and she felt overwhelmed by the urge to laugh. Her lips were bloodless. “I will seek help,” she said to her pale, wide-eyed face. “I will get to the bottom of this.”
But even as she spoke the words she knew she would not. Already she was beginning to smile, watching her reflection as it spread its mouth and bared its teeth, first terrifying, then beautiful, as if a bright key were turning inside her. All her life she’d been frightened of widening the doorways of her world — and here they were, flung open to the elements, the wind and the rain and the stones and the stars rushing in. This, her most delicious secret, ran through her like fire. Her fingertips sizzled. If she raised her hands she would be able to draw her name in the air with flame.
Years later, she lived in a cluttered little house on several acres bordering the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The wilderness was known as one of the darkest places in the United States and on her property Alia owned a series of guest-houses that she rented out to stargazers who came from all corners of the earth to witness the unpolluted shimmer of the night sky. Every few days she would give a Tour of the Sky, letting guests line up on her specially-constructed roof deck to peer through her expensive telescope while she explained what they were seeing. Nearby was an open field dotted with Adirondack chairs. There were blankets everywhere.
She had worked for a long time in a New Mexican ecology lab to save up for these guest-houses, the telescope, the blankets, but now she was making very good money and the stargazing B&B was her fulltime job. Every week she went to therapy and wept with abandon. She was a joyful amateur astronomer and counted professional astronomers and astrophysicists amongst her closest friends, and often, still, the night sky moved her to tearful laughter. People described her as eccentric, electric, lit-up from the inside. Even as she aged she was known for passionate love affairs and equally passionate friendships. She seemed to vibrate on a different frequency.
Often she would look in the mirror and smile at what she saw reflected back. Unlike most people, she never said to herself sadly, “I am all alone.” Unlike most people, she never asked herself, “Am I all alone?” She knew that she was. She knew she was not. Inside each person was a vast solar system that could never be explored and never be known and yet could never remain untouched by the other systems that surrounded it. Cell walls were, after all, permeable. Suns could die and gravity release the stars. Planets could drift until they were moons.
She never spoke of what she knew or suspected she knew. It was her final secret and yet she felt it was not hers to tell; it belonged to the birds. But now when people asked her, “Do you believe in _____?” her answer was always the same. It took the form of a question; the question she’d withheld all those years ago from her ex-boyfriend’s drunk colleague at a pub. She would respond, “If you knew one way or the other whether your belief was true or false, would it make a difference?” She asked, “Would you change your life?”